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A Hymn for Her

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Marlene Elias is a gospel singer with an important following that will take her to India later this week to sing for her friend, Mother Teresa.

The 64-year-old Newbury Park resident, who maintained a close friendship with the revered nun, was invited to sing at her state funeral Saturday in Calcutta.

“I’m still kind of shocked and really nervous,” said Elias, who has recorded 11 gospel albums in the last dozen years. “I’m still not sure what to say.”

While the honor of such an invitation hasn’t been lost on Elias, she said it’s also a chance to say a final goodbye to someone she considered her dearest friend.

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“No one really knew how funny she was,” Elias said. “Everyone always sees these pictures of her looking very serious, but she had the sweetest smile and she could really laugh.”

Elias first met Mother Teresa 10 years ago when she accompanied her brother, a missionary, to Calcutta.

Her brother, Msgr. John Esseff, was working in shell-shocked Beirut assisting the poor when Mother Teresa invited him to help organize a retreat for the sisters in the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta.

The opportunity to meet a woman Elias had admired since a child was too great so she packed her bags.

But the joyous anticipation of meeting Mother Teresa was soon replaced by tears of horror and disbelief when she saw the dirty throngs of Calcutta’s destitute, crippled and diseased masses along the city’s alleys and dank streets.

“I literally cried for three days straight because of what I saw,” Elias said.

As a resident of an affluent Ventura County suburb, she said she was wholly unprepared for the nightmarish scenes of discarded babies tossed in garbage bins, of scabby lepers begging for charity and crippled people huddled along streets. “Here I came from little old Newbury Park and I couldn’t imagine the suffering I saw there.”

On her third day of despair, she said Mother Teresa came and placed her wrinkled hands on her shoulders.

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“You’ve got to stop crying,” Elias said, recounting the words of the renowned nun. “They have enough tears of their own. What they need is your smile.”

Elias said Mother Teresa gave her strength to meet India’s suffering with a brave and sympathetic face.

She accompanied Mother Teresa and the other sisters as they made their daily circuits through the streets to swaddle and collect abandoned babies, provide relief to the sick and embrace the dying.

“I watched her, this little woman, lift these people from the street and bring them with her,” she said. “It was, at the same time, so sad and so uplifting.”

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After that visit in 1987, Elias kept in close touch with Mother Teresa. They exchanged dozens of letters and visited together on those rare occasions when Mother Teresa traveled to the United States.

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Elias, a receptionist at the Pierce Brothers Mortuary in Thousand Oaks, even kept Mother Teresa’s phone number listed on the speed dial.

When she learned of her death, Elias said she didn’t know exactly how to react.

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Personally, she said she’s lost a friend whom she loved dearly. But she also knew the extent of Mother Teresa’s illness and physical suffering and was happy she had been “released.”

“I feel like I’ve lost my mother,” she said in a faltering voice as her eyes moistened. “I miss her; oh do I miss her, but in my heart I know she’s happier.”

Elias said she taped hours of conversations with Mother Teresa and plans to write a book--not only to commemorate a life spent embracing the world’s untouchables, but also to spread the wisdom of her cherished mentor.

She will also donate all the proceeds earned through any album sales to the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity to aid its efforts to help the poor.

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Since learning of her invitation, Elias, who was given a free airline ticket from Air India, has decided to sing one of Mother Teresa’s favorite songs, “My Brother’s Keeper"--a song penned by Elias.

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It will be a fitting remembrance for a friend who gave Elias an uncommon strength and faith that the world, despite all its ills and injustice, abounds with humanity.

“Everyone says how bad the world is, but I think it’s beautiful, truly beautiful,” she said. “She showed that. She gave me hope.”

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When looking back on that friendship and the change it made in her life, Elias remembers visiting a children’s hospital ward in Calcutta to hand out granola bars.

In one corner was a skinny little girl stricken with leprosy lying on a bed. She was hairless, dirty and dotted with open red sores.

“Up to then I couldn’t look at a leper and I didn’t want to drop the bar next to the girl, so I prayed for the strength to touch her,” Elias said. “I hugged her and something that I could feel from the top of my head to the bottom of my toes happened.

“From then on when I walked the streets of Calcutta I was happy.”

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